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Six Degrees: End of the Road

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Portland 3, Philadelphia 1

MLS: Portland Timbers at Philadelphia Union Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This column has come out on Tuesday for three straight weeks. Should we just go ahead and make Tuesdays an official thing? Cool, let’s do it. Tuesdays from now on.


1) Philadelphia beat Portland in almost every statistic Saturday night. Possession, passes, passing accuracy, shots, pretty much everything. But Portland was ahead on two stats: shots on target and goals scored. And that really is the story of the night. Philly couldn’t finish, Portland could.

The night’s first goal started with Diego Chara being a schoolyard bully and straight-up taking the ball from some stupid nerd. Whoever put together the highlight reel cut it out, but he’s done it often enough I’m sure you can picture it pretty good. Here’s what happened after his steal.

Notice how Chara’s made himself available to Diego Valeri. I wouldn’t have blamed Valeri for passing to him, but nope, El Maestro makes the harder pass, the better pass, cutting through two or three defenders to Andy Polo on the wing.

Now, I’ve been pretty vocal in my criticism of Polo, and was 100% ready to rip him even further after he completely blew an opportunity in the 27th minute. But this cross to Brian Fernandez? It’s a perfect cross. It’s the Platonic ideal of a cross, curling around the center back, just shy of the keeper, right where no one could get it but Fernandez. Mmm. *kisses fingertips* Absolute perfection.

Also worth watching, Fernandez’s movement in the box. Watch how he stays in the center back’s blind spot. Watch how he adjusts as the cross is coming in. Watch how much power he gets on the header. Dude’s good.

2) But that wasn’t even his best goal of the night. That came just five minutes later.

If the first goal gave us the Platonic ideal of a cross, I think this one gave us the Platonic ideal of a counter attack. It was fucking deadly.

My favorite moment from this goal isn’t Philly’s Alejandro Bedoya falling on his face at the very beginning, though that was certainly delightful. My favorite moment was when Brian Fernandez turned it from a 3-on-3 break into a 3-on-1 break by showing a defender the ball, then pulling it back. The defender goes down like he’s on ice skates, Fernandez slips the ball through to Valeri, then re-joins the break, hoping for the pass that does eventually come. 2-0, good guys.

Last week in Houston, Fernandez’s goal showed us that he could ride the back line, he had an amazing first touch, and he could stay calm under pressure. This week in Philly, he showed us he can make himself invisible in the box, he can score with his head, he can clown defenders with the ball on his foot, and he can race forward on a counter attack. That’s seven skills and three goals in just two games.

Remember last year when Samuel Armenteros scored seven goals in nine games, and each one was skillful and daring and more impressive than the last? I remember writing something like, Guys, I think Armenteros may be the best forward this team’s ever had.

Well, turns out Armenteros couldn’t keep it up. But Brian Fernandez? Can he keep this up? Because if this is real, if all this skill, all this desire, and all this daring is for real? Yeah, he’s gonna be the best forward this team’s ever had.

If he can keep it up, that is. Armenteros couldn’t. Let’s hope Fernandez can.

3) Did you notice what I called Fernandez up above? I called him a forward.

But is he? Or is he a winger? Or some amalgam between the two?

The team started Saturday’s game in a 4-4-2 diamond, Fernandez up top with Jeremy Ebobisse, and Diego Valeri playing at the tip of the diamond midfield. It didn’t really work too well, so at about the 20-25 minute mark, the team shifted to the standard 4-4-1-1 they’ve been playing a lot lately – only with one major difference. Instead of Ebobisse and Valeri up top, it was Fernandez and Valeri, with Ebobisse shifting to left wing.

Bit of a surprise, right? Jebo as a left winger? Weird.

But not unprecedented. Jebo played on the left wing earlier this year with the US Men’s National Team. It seemed weird at the time, but maybe Gio saw it on TV and found it tempting. Maybe Jebo liked it. I really don’t know. All I know is Gio tried it on Saturday in Philly and it worked.

Will it become our new formation? Doubtful, considering Sebastian Blanco’s normally in that spot. Of course, Blanco’s ambipedal (I think everyone should have to do a shot when I use that word), so Gio could play him on the right.

Or – and here comes a crazy idea, one you’ve never heard from me, except I’m just kidding, you’ve heard it from me a thousand times, but goddamn it, I’m gonna die on this hill – they could leave Jebo up top and put Fernandez on the right wing.

Now, before you guys start screaming and yelling about how Fernandez was meant to play forward and how I clearly don’t understand soccer, let’s check in with mlssoccer.com’s Matt Doyle, who I think we can all agree most definitely does understand soccer. Here’s what he wrote.

So there you go. I’m not the only guy who wants to see Fernandez on the wing. And to be honest, maybe all I want is to see him out there. Just to find out how it works. If it’s a disaster, fine, move him back to forward. But maybe it’ll work great. Maybe we’ll finally have a goal-scoring threat on the right wing. I just want Gio to try it a few times so we can see if it works. That’s not asking so much, is it?

4) Let’s use a single degree to cover both Philly’s 47th minute goal to make it 2-1 and Portland’s 87th minute goal to seal the 3-1 win.

Philly’s goal was just stupid.

Look at that ball skittering down the goal line, then going in. Who do you blame for something like that? God? Physics? The stupid ball? The stupid grass?

I’m gonna blame the stupid grass. What’s your problem, grass? Why you gotta be so stupid?

Next up, Diego Valeri, sealing the win.

On this goal, there’s two cool things worth noting. First cool thing, I love the interplay between Valeri and Blanco. When Valeri makes the pass to Blanco, there’s absolutely no delay in his run, then Blanco’s return pass, then Valeri’s shot. It’s just bang bang bang, like they’re reading each other’s minds, like all that mate they’ve been drinking together is actually part of some dark magic mind-reading ritual that you and I will never understand.

Second cool thing, watch how left back Jorge Villafaña draws a defender away with his overlapping run. Jorge doesn’t get the pass, but drawing that defender just a foot or two toward the sideline may have created the little bit of room Blanco and Valeri needed to do their dark mind-reading magic.

5) Let’s now take a moment to reflect on the 12-game road trip that the Timbers just completed. As you know, this wasn’t just a long road trip, it was the longest road trip in the history of MLS. Am I happy with our performance? Before I say, let’s take a look at what I wrote before our first game, way back in February.

Here we are, three months later, with 14 points, and I gotta tell you, I’m pretty damn pleased. And my pleasure isn’t just because of the 14 points, it’s because of how we got them. We started ice cold and finished red hot.

The Timbers currently have 1.17 PPG, but are most definitely not a 1.17 team. We’re much better than that. Why? Because that 1.17 PPG includes our first 6 games, when we had a PPG of 0.17.

We are not that team anymore.

We’re the team from the last 6 games, when our PPG’s been 2.17. That’s the team that’s coming home next week. A genuinely good team, with a defense that’s stopped bleeding goals and an offense that just added a goal-scoring phenom. A team with depth at multiple positions. A team that can play multiple formations. A team that’s got a ton of home games coming up and is ready to make a serious run. A team that everyone in the league should be worried about.

6) Unfortunately... there’s one team in MLS that’s not worried about anybody, and it’s the team we just happen to be playing next week. LAFC’s not just the best team in the league, they’re a mothereffin’ buzzsaw. They’re eights points up on the next closest team, and are on pace to set new MLS records for both points and goal differential.

Remember a couple years ago when Diego Valeri won the MVP by having a 20/10 season? LAFC’s Carlos Vela is on pace for a 30/20 season. That’s not a misprint. 30 goals, 20 assists. Check his stats. They’re absurd. He’s been running in Ludicrous Mode all year.

All that stuff I wrote earlier about how the Timbers are a good team now, how we’re a team to be reckoned with? All that bravado, all that confidence flies right out the window when I think about LAFC. They scare me. Bad. And this sucks, because next week’s our home opener, we’re finally coming home, we’re finally getting to see the new section, we’re finally getting to hang out with friends, sing some songs, see some tifo, and basically have a big fun celebration. And I’m worried LAFC’s gonna fuck the whole thing up by beating us 4-1.

I know this is crazy, but my head’s in a place where I’d actually be happy with a draw this Saturday. That’s fucked up, right? I think I’ve got Pre Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m already traumatized by the beating LAFC might give us this weekend. Somebody please talk me off this ledge, okay? Convince me it’s gonna be alright.

Well, you know what? If we lose, we lose. I’m gonna try to have a good time anyway. Because it really is going to be a homecoming and a celebration. It really will be great to see all the familiar faces, watch the tifo be lifted, and sing all the old songs.

You and I, we’ve done it all plenty of times now, but you know who hasn’t? You know who’ll be seeing it all for the first time? Brian Fernandez. So far, all he’s seen is a dismal crowd in Houston and a moderately okay crowd in Philadelphia. He thinks that’s what a normal MLS crowd is like. He has no idea what we’re going to unleash on him next weekend.

Let’s blow his fucking mind, okay?